But in this moment of incredible horror and sadness, there was much to do. No time to dwell on the what ifs. We needed to establish a base of operations, account for all of our employees, send personnel to assist in what we thought were to be rescue operations and efforts to save lives. We needed to figure out what happened, and how, and by whom. The would be time for accusations of missed opportunities, failing to connect the dots, blames to be spread around, “I told you so” whistle-blower testimonials, and plenty of recriminations to go around inside our caught flat-footed government.
But for now, in the immediate aftermath of this tragic event, critical evidence must be collected and preserved. What about eyewitnesses? There would be charges to bring and perpetrators to apprehend. So much ahead. We had to get to work now! But could we still be vulnerable to another immediate attack?
I looked up towards the cloudless sky. Scanning right and left. Forcing my eyes to move past the billowing smoke and searching for a speck that could be another aircraft-as-bomb aimed towards us.
And then the North Tower collapsed.
I was six blocks north of the site now, nestled between St. Andrews church, the courthouses, and Foley Square, surrounded by my shocked and bewildered colleagues. And I felt the collapse again without seeing it. The ground fairly shook. It was nothing short of surreal. Was it finally here? Armageddon?
The rest of that fateful day was but a blur. We moved our operations slightly north of lower Manhattan, taking up shop at our agency garage and then moving again to the U.S.S. Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier, now refurbished and serving a second career as The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, located at Pier 86, where 46th Street intersects 12th Avenue. The entire “key and essential” cadre of the FBI’s New York City Office occupied the interior underbelly of the Intrepid. As details began to trickle in, intelligence reports making their way to our disseminators, tasks were identified, teams formed, and the hard work of piecing together the details of just whom had committed this reprehensible act, and why.
Over the course of the next six months, I slept sparingly, and spent daily twelve-hour shifts, working through weekends, as I served on “the pile”, aided in evidence recovery from the bodies removed from the site and processed in a makeshift morgue, and endured stints sifting through the rubble that was trucked out to Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill. The work was arduous and depressing. But it was essential to the cause. And no matter how relentless the routine seemed to me, I always allowed my mind to drift back the indelible images seared in my memory of witnessing fellow Americans choosing to leap to their deaths from the burning towers, rather than be consumed by fire in the apocalyptic impact zone.
But September 13th was different. It was just two days after the attacks. I had slept fitfully the past two nights, curled up while catnapping, in a corner of the Intrepid, and continuously awakening to the debilitating depression that came with the realization that 9/11 had been anything but a dream.
Other federal agencies located at 26 Federal Plaza, or within the collapsed or condemned World Trade Center Complex, had spent the past two days marshalling at the Intrepid, as well. There were thousands of federal agents and professional support personnel now assembled. I had recently been somewhat considering a transfer back to HRT. I missed the action, the constant thrill of going into harm’s way. I missed my brethren there. Maybe this was the moment that would trigger that return. I wanted payback. I was angry. I was sad. I was struggling to make sense out of what had just occurred to our nation — a nation that throughout the course of its brief history had shed more of its blood and spent more of its treasure in order to help secure freedom for other nations than any other in modern time. I couldn’t fathom why this could happen to us. It simply made no sense.
My thoughts were abruptly interrupted.
“Jimmy Gags,” one of the FBI Executive Managers barked. I thrust my hand in the air. Our eyes met. “Come with me,” he motioned, pulling me to the side and speaking in a hushed tone. “Hey, this ain’t exactly an HRT mission for you, but the ASAC (Assistant-Special-Agent-in-Charge) wants you to take a comingled team of law enforcement personnel downtown and handle an evidence recovery mission right next to the pile at Ground Zero. There ain’t exactly any survivors to rescue. I think everyone is coming to grips with the grip reality that it’s probably just a recovery effort now” Okay, I thought, whatever needs to be done. I asked him for specifics. Where exactly?
Trinity Church was the response.
Trinity Church was one of our country’s oldest and most iconic places of worship. It was first constructed in 1698. It sat at the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street. The British held it as a Loyalist bastion after George Washington marched north following the Battle of Long Island. Legend has it that President Washington returned after the war to worship there. Other notable congregants included John Jay and Alexander Hamilton.
The church now sat on the periphery of what can only be described as a war zone…Ground Zero.
I gathered up my gear, fastening the drop holster that cradled my Les Baer custom .45 that I had been issued while on HRT, around my hips, and tugged at the fasteners that wrapped around my leg splint. I allowed my hand to move down to the pistol’s grip. It was tactile. Having been wrapped in skateboard tape after innumerable missions had drenched it in sweat. It felt good. Fuck whatever came our way. I had this handy piece of steel and knew how to use it. I took a deep breath and set my jaw. Turning around inside the crowded belly of the Intrepid, I picked up my bag.
I next motioned to a group of law enforcement personnel that had been put in my charge and I moved to the exit, as confidently as possible, my injured leg be damned, with the group in trail. I tried not to noticeably limp. It would’ve been a sign of weakness, an occasion for useless sympathy.
We reconvened downtown at 26 Federal Plaza, a few blocks walk from Trinity Church.
And, as the fifty or so law enforcement officers assigned to my team huddled around me outside of the Duane Street side exit of 26 Federal Plaza, I took a deep breath and paused. Some one-hundred eyes squarely fixed on my face. I knew a handful of them; FBI Agents I had encountered through some ten years on the job. The rest were strangers to me. But now they looked at me and awaited their orders. My right hand fumbled in the pocket of my blue raid jacket, emblazoned with the gold block letters, F-B-I. I was nervous. Did it show? I had to get ahold of my emotions. I straightened up, and stood as tall as I could, what with the leg brace mandating that my left leg had to remain a bit off-kilter. It was an awkward pose for sure.
Get control of your emotions, and breathe…
Shit, I thought. This moment demands something important or impactful be said. I wasn’t typically worried about a public speaking opportunity. I was a West Pointer for God’s sake. I had been an Airborne-Ranger Infantry Officer in the 10th Mountain Division. I had led troops. I understood command presence and word choice and how to motivate and inspire. And with some ten years in the FBI, I had gained valuable experience and opportunities to explore human psychology and refine my speech to a hyper-effectiveness. I had spent years as an FBI SWAT team member and as an “HRT guy”. I was born for this. Or so I thought…
A tear suddenly, unexpectedly coursed my cheek. I started to speak and my words wavered as my voice cracked. You could have heard a pin drop. The arrayed barely blinking eyes continued to remain squarely fixed on me. I shuffled my injured leg to a more comfortable position, and cleared my voice, hoping to forestall its cracking again. My hand returned from my raid jacket pocket and I carefully unfolded the printout of an online opinion column I had secured earlier that morning. It was written by a little-known columnist, someone I had never heard of, Leonard Pitts, and had appeared in a newspaper that to that point I never read, The Miami Herald. It was simply entitled, “We’ll Go Forward from This Moment.” And, it contained the words I desperately struggled to find at that moment.
How did I come across it? I had heard it read aloud on the radio the day prior, and it hit me like a freight train. The words were measured. They gathered steam slowly, patiently, effectively. They reached their crescendo at the perfect marriage of artful prose and passionate opinion relating. The next morning, the internet still being a fairly new contrivance in government circles, especially with the attendant administrative upheaval caused by the relocation to the Intrepid, I was somehow able to convince one of the museum’s employees to allow me access to locate the column and print out the piece. I had read and reread it so many times that I had nearly committed it to memory. I had then folded the paper and stuffed it into my pocket; confident I would make use of it in some important way. And at this very moment, standing awkwardly in front of the assembled cops and agents, I knew it was exactly what the moment required.
I unfolded the column, cleared my throat, and began to read from the page. I gave no preamble, no fair warning as to what I was going to do beforehand. I simply read Leonard Pitts’ words aloud. He was an African-American columnist and he was a professional writer paid for his words. I did not know him. He’d certainly never heard of me. We came from different backgrounds and our professional lives involved disparate duties. But today, we were joined as one.
And so I began to read:
It’s my job to have something to say.
They pay me to provide words that help make sense of that which troubles the American soul. But in this moment of airless shock when hot tears sting disbelieving eyes, the only thing I can find to say, the only words that seem to fit, must be addressed to the unknown author of this suffering.
You monster. You beast. You unspeakable bastard.
What lesson did you hope to teach us by your coward’s attack on our World Trade Center, our Pentagon, us? What was it you hoped we would learn? Whatever it was, please know that you failed.
Did you want us to respect your cause? You just damned your cause.
Did you want to make us fear? You just steeled our resolve.
Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together.
Let me tell you about my people. We are a vast and quarrelsome family, a family rent by racial, social, political and class division, but a family nonetheless. We’re frivolous, yes, capable of expending tremendous emotional energy on pop cultural minutiae – a singer’s revealing dress, a ball team’s misfortune, a cartoon mouse.
We’re wealthy, too, spoiled by the ready availability of trinkets and material goods, and maybe because of that, we walk through life with a certain sense of blithe entitlement. We are fundamentally decent, though – peace-loving and compassionate. We struggle to know the right thing and to do it. And we are, the overwhelming majority of us, people of faith, believers in a just and loving God.
Some people – you, perhaps – think that any or all of this makes us weak. You’re mistaken. We are not weak. Indeed, we are strong in ways that cannot be measured by arsenals.
Yes, we’re in pain now. We are in mourning, and we are in shock. We’re still grappling with the unreality of the awful thing you did, still working to make ourselves understand that this isn’t a special effect from some Hollywood blockbuster, isn’t the plot development from a Tom Clancy novel.
Both in terms of the awful scope of their ambition and the probable final death toll, your attacks are likely to go down as the worst acts of terrorism in the history of the United States and, probably, the history of the world. You’ve bloodied us as we have never been bloodied before.
But there’s a gulf of difference between making us bloody and making us fall. This is the lesson Japan was taught to its bitter sorrow the last time anyone hit us this hard, the last time anyone brought us such abrupt and monumental pain. When roused, we are righteous in our outrage, terrible in our force. When provoked by this level of barbarism, we will bear any suffering, pay any cost, go to any length, in the pursuit of justice.
I tell you this without fear of contradiction. I know my people, as you, I think, do not. What I know reassures me. It also causes me to tremble with dread of the future.
In the days to come, there will be recrimination and accusation, fingers pointing to determine whose failure al- lowed this to happen and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. There will be heightened security, misguided talk of revoking basic freedoms. We’ll go forward from this moment sobered, chastened, sad. But determined, too. Unimaginably determined.
You see, the steel in us is not always readily apparent. That aspect of our character is seldom understood by people who don’t know us well. On this day, the family’s bickering is put on hold.
As Americans, we will weep; as Americans, we will mourn; and as Americans, we will rise in defense of all that we cherish.
So I ask again: What was it you hoped to teach us? It occurs to me that maybe you just wanted us to know the depths of your hatred. If that’s the case, consider the message received. And take this message in exchange: You don’t know my people. You don’t know what we’re capable of.
You don’t know what you just started.
But you’re about to learn.
And so, as I completed my recitation of Pitts’ words, only having stopped twice — Oh, who can really recall how many times it was — along the way to gather myself, compelling myself to move past the choked-up struggle with words that impeded my reading aloud, I grimly set my jaw, finally looking up from the page, carefully refolded the column and placed it back inside my jacket pocket. Many in the throng of folks around me were weeping softly. For those of us charged with protecting America, we blamed this lapse of deadly consequence on ourselves. What could we have done? What should we have foreseen? Leonard Pitts’ words brought that despondency, grief, and sense of responsibility to a boil, and coupled with our own internalized survivor’s guilt, combined to send salty tears in rivulets down the faces of some of the hardened and typically stoic men and women assembled in front of me.
We were one. We, who were charged with this grim task today, and who were aligned with an opinion writer from Florida, presumably many miles south of where we were now assembled. He gave voice to our feelings. He was us. We were assuredly him. I wiped my face with the back of my hand. Never let them see you cry, I thought to myself.
Timing…How many times had I thought about THAT these past few days?
And then my daydream was abruptly interrupted:
“What do you think is going to happen to us; to our country,” a bright, young rookie federal agent from the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS), known as “MK”, queried? She embodied the spirit of selfless sacrifice and idealism imbued in young law enforcement professionals. She wanted to serve. You could sense it. She wanted to make a difference. Her father had been an Army Ranger. Someone had told her I was also a recipient of the tiny piece of black and gold embroidered fabric that took some 81 days in a “crucible” to earn the right to wear on one’s left shoulder. “What do you think, Ranger? What will happen to our country after all this?” She wasn’t putting me on the spot. She wanted an answer. She deserved an answer. We all did. And in that moment, one came to me.
“MK, we will survive this. Our country is so much stronger than the forces aligned attempting to destroy it. And think about what we have already survived as a nation — a bloody civil war, and its original sin of allowing slavery. We’ve survived two world wars and stared down murderous dictators and despots, and answered the call to confront genocidal fascists. We will survive this. As Mr. Pitts so poignantly put it in his column — we will go forward from this moment. And out of this unspeakable tragedy, we will ALL come together. We’ll put aside our petty differences, and partisan politics, and we’ll come together as Americans always do. We have to. That’s what Americans do. We owe it to our countrymen buried for eternity in those smoking holes just down the block from us. This, I promise you.”
She smiled. “I thought as much,” she blurted. “Now, tell us what you need us to do to contribute to the effort putting this investigation together and finding the bastards behind all of this. I think the country will heal itself along the way. But we have important work to do, right, Jimmy?”
I was stunned. She certainly didn’t have my background or training or experience. And, as she had already revealed to the group, she knew white collar crime and fraud investigations. This whole terrorists knocking down buildings thing? Not in her wheelhouse. And yet, somehow, she flat nailed it.
And her interjection was savvy by design. It was time for me to lead. I straightened myself up. I bit into the inside of my left cheek, and then I began to lay out our mission. It was to entail sifting through several feet of building debris, pulverized concrete dust, steel girder pieces, aircraft parts, and human remains that had settled in the adjacent cemetery on the eastern boundaries of Trinity Church. Truth be told, it was a Hazmat site. But there was to be no OSHA mandated precautions. And no safety inspections. We had a job to do. And we were burning daylight.
The work was time-consuming and it was difficult. It was certainly messy, and it was but one TINY cog in the rather massive investigative effort. But it was OUR mission that day. And it had to be accomplished. We owed it to those who had perished. We owed it to their families. We owed it to our fellow citizens; the ones on the left of issues, and the ones who typically come down on the right. We owed it to the Leonard Pitts, the folks who put words to our feelings and captured how we felt and pointed us in the direction that the nation needed to proceed. It was September 13th, 2001. And in the midst of so much devastation and pain, hope, yet again, sprang eternal.
It was dark that evening when I headed home for the first time in three days. As my Bureau steed headed north up the vacant Westside Highway, a roadway usually crammed with vehicles no matter the time of day…or night, I drove in silence. No radio. No CD playing. Just alone with my suffocating and inescapable thoughts of the past few days. And for the first couple of blocks inside the police blockades that kept civilians north of Houston Street for months after 9/11, there was an eerie stillness.
And then as I crossed the threshold, the silence was suddenly and unexpectedly pierced…
It was just after 9:00PM and the West Side Highway was inexplicably alive. As I navigated my government vehicle north, festooned and adorned as it was with the “cop look” — enough antennas to make Verizon blush — it began. Slowly, at first…
A couple of folks gathered holding signs and clapping, waving, and cheering.
For whom? — I thought.
And as I passed each block, in succession, the gatherings grew in size, and in volume, and in momentum. It was raucous cheering now. Placards that said “Thank You” and “You Are Our Heroes”. Old and young alike, assembled in tribute, and seeking to be heard. They came in all shapes and sizes and colors. And they populated the blocks known to be conservative bastions of New York City and they turned out in force on the Upper West Side, a fairly liberal enclave.
It was a humbling scene. And I lowered my eyes. Not worthy of the tribute that clearly should be directed at the first responders who perished in the rubble; the police, the firefighters, and the emergency medical technicians.
I took another deep breath and threaded my way through the swelling crowds that actually spilled over onto parts of the highway. I imagined the scene a few days after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December of 1941. How our country answered the call during those dark days following the surprise attack on our Pacific Fleet. In my periphery, I took in the multitude of American flags defiantly waving and I nodded my head humbly at the woman clasping her hands together on her chest and mouthing a silent “thank you.” And in my head, I began to recite the poetic words from Leonard Pitts’ column. Yes, YES, we would go forward from this moment…
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